The Myth of Handgun “Stopping Power”

Xtreme Nuke Ninja Ammo!

This article originally appeared on March 8, 2012.

I enjoy a good sales pitch. Part of being an American is being oversold on everything. This vacuum picks up the dirt that other vacuums leave behind! This home gym will give you a flat stomach by exercising just 10 minutes a day, plus it folds under your bed for storage! This ammo has so much stopping power that the government tried to ban it from civilian purchase! Yeah, right. When it comes to ammunition selection for personal defense, we need to separate real from hype before making a purchase. If you make a bad purchase on a vacuum or a home gym, you are likely to be a bit embarrassed. Making a bad purchase on defensive ammunition could have dire consequences. Let’s talk about some fundamentals so you’ll be able to make an informed decision.

Xtreme Nuke Ninja Ammo!
Would you trust your life to Xtreme Nuke Ninja? Better do some basic research first.

Four terms need defining for us to understand how bullets work.

  • Penetration
    The amount of tissue—bone, fat, and muscle—that a bullet passes through.
  • Permanent Cavity
    The amount of empty space—the hole—left in the body behind the bullet.
  • Temporary Cavity
    The momentary expansion of the permanent cavity stretching as the bullet’s kinetic energy is transferred to it.
  • Fragmentation
    The separation of the bullet into smaller chunks, or pieces, which leave the permanent cavity and spin off in different directions.

Regardless of velocity, the bullet crushes the tissue in front of it as it penetrates or tunnels through that tissue. After the infamous “Miami Firefight” of 1986, the FBI set a minimum penetration requirement of 12 inches for their ammunition. This became the industry standard. All bullets penetrate and leave behind a measurable permanent cavity, even the .22 LR. All bullets also create a temporary cavity, although actually measuring it is nearly impossible. Fragmentation is dependent on two factors; bullet design and velocity. Impact velocities above 2,000 feet per second can cause fragmentation in full metal jacket bullets with thin jacketing, such as M193 5.56 NATO. Soft point or hollow point rounds may also fragment at the same velocities.

In rifle rounds, fragmentation accounts for a lot of the bullet’s ability to destroy tissue and stop bad guys in their tracks. Making slower pistol rounds fragment requires specialized bullet designs that fragment very easily. The problem with these rounds, such as the Glaser Safety Slug, is that they fragment immediately without penetrating. They are advertised as being safer to shoot indoors because they won’t penetrate walls and kill innocents on the other side. This is true! However, a round that can’t penetrate two layers of brittle sheetrock isn’t going to devastate a 250-pound man coming at you with a crowbar either. It will break up immediately upon hitting his skin, shower the first few inches of fat and muscle with little specks of lead, and fail to reach his vital organs. This is not what we want. At this time there is no magic pistol round that is safe when you miss, but “knows” when it hits a bad guy and decides that now is the time to penetrate and then fragment. Any round capable of penetrating tissue to FBI minimum standards is also capable of penetrating doors and walls. Fragmentation in pistol rounds falls into just two categories, won’t happen and fragments without penetrating.

The temporary wound channel is another factor we honestly can’t count on with pistols. Because it is known but not measurable, it has become the center of all sorts of marketing smoke and mirrors. For example, Federal Hydra-Shok ammunition was named for the concept of “hydraulic shock;” the idea that tissue not actually touched by the bullet could still be damaged by the “energy dump” or “kinetic energy transfer” of the bullet’s velocity to the surrounding tissue. The “energy dump” was the given reason why bad guys would be “knocked down” by the new hollow-point technology of rounds like the Hydra-Shok. Of course, there is no such thing as “knock-down power” with pistols, because no pistol knocks the shooter down when fired. Newton tells us that for each action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Therefore, the recoil your hand feels when you shoot a pistol is roughly equal to the amount of energy the bullet has as it leaves the muzzle, just compressed into a smaller, denser, much faster projectile. Getting shot by a handgun will not physically knock you down. I’ve been told it feels like being hit by a fastball, followed by a terrible stinging pain coming from your insides. Hydra-Shok is quality ammunition with a long track record in law enforcement and civilian use, but it physically cannot knock the bad guy over like we always see in the movies.

Tissue damage done through hydraulic shock is small even in many rifle calibers. In pistol calibers there is just not enough kinetic energy transferred to surrounding tissue to make any significant difference at all. That leaves us with penetration and permanent wound channel as the two ways pistol calibers consistently damage tissue. If penetration were all that mattered, we would all be carrying full metal jacket rounds like the military does. Of course, penetration is not everything. The military issues those FMJ rounds because under our interpretation of the Hague convention, hollow points are inhumane and contrary to the laws of war. The USA never signed the Hague convention but follows it strictly anyway, while other countries that did sign it have long since abandoned its outdated rules. I suppose the Hague Convention is why you’ll never see the USAF lobbing poison gas bombs from hot air balloons. For those of us who are not stuck in the 19th century, modern technology has provided the hollow point bullet.

.45acp Gold Dots
A few .45acp Gold Dot jacketed hollow point bullets, two unfired and six that have expanded.

A hollow point bullet fired from a handgun is designed to flatten out as it penetrates through soft tissue, staying in once piece but forming a “mushroom” shape with a wider diameter. This means less penetration than FMJ, but a bigger permanent wound channel. If penetration still meets the FBI’s required 12 inches, you get the best of both ways that a handgun bullet realistically damages tissue. What we want out of our handguns is 12 inches of penetration through soft tissue with the largest permanent wound channel possible. This maximizes our chances of directly damaging something vital.

This is the part where thousands of .45 ACP shooters smugly say, “That’s why I carry a .45, it puts ‘em down with just one shot.” I have seen this assertion many times on our Facebook page. Folks, you must hit something vital with any handgun bullet to quickly stop an assailant. A good friend of mine was in a shootout two years ago and was hit three times with .38 Special Speer Gold Dots before he even began to return fire. He scored two hits on the bad guy with .45 ACP Winchester SXT rounds (the ones that known as “Black Talons” back in the day) and the assailant ran off. The police followed a blood trail for eight hours before finding the bad guy hiding in a closet. Both men survived. My friend was the star witness at the bad guy’s trial, where they sentenced the bad guy to life in prison plus 30 years. The .45 ACP did save the day, but it did not physically stop the assailant. He simply ran away because someone was fighting back and his revolver was empty.

Handguns are not nearly as powerful as the movies, the media, and the firearms industry itself want you to believe. Regardless of your caliber of choice, train often, shoot fast and accurately, and be prepared for a life-threatening fight that continues after you’ve emptied the magazine. When deciding on what ammo to carry, do your own research and don’t believe the hype!

Tell us what you think about handgun stopping power in the comment section.

The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog. "The Shooter's Log", is to provide information - not opinions - to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decicions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (196)

  1. Seems some people have size issues and think that bigger but slower moving and less ammo pistol is going to magically kill a person. There is plenty of hard science showing the .45 and 44 mag for all its impressive boom is not a man stopper at all and tend to pass thru in many cases. Paramedic will also attest to this. 10mm now that seem to be one of the best of both worlds.

    I am all for people using what ever fancies their little minds but hard science show reality and that is what counts. Shot placement is the king not size; since most people don’t actually practice and are terrible shots they figure if I have a huge GUN I should just fine. So keep on running around with your big gun for what ever reason you want its all the same. 19 round in my pistol will give me more chances to live another day. Plus there are so many new and innovative ammo types on the market that there is no reason to think that bigger is still better.

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